How job stress might be killing you, and what you can do about it
Workplace stress can seem inevitable, particularly if your financial security is tied to your paycheck. But such stress can give you more than just tension headaches or a few sleepless nights – it can actually decrease your life span.
Work is the second most common source of stress among U.S. adults, just behind money, according to the 2014 Stress in America survey from the American Psychological Association. Sixty percent of adults say their jobs are a somewhat significant or very significant source of stress, and experts say workplace stress affects us differently than other forms of stress.
"We have more control over family stress than workplace stress," says psychotherapist Bryan Robinson, author of the book "Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them." "It's easier to say no to a spouse or child than it is to your boss, but you can still set boundaries at work."
When you don't set these difficult boundaries, or when an employer doesn't respect them, the results can be hazardous to your health.
Workplace Stress and Cumulative Health Effects
In the short term, long hours or unmanageable workloads can lead to unhealthful lifestyle habits such as skipping lunch or sacrificing sleep.
A study from the Center for Monetary and Financial Studies looked at French workers both before and after a law in France reduced the maximum allowable workweek hours from 39 to 35. The researchers found that those extra four hours of weekly work increased the likelihood of smoking, alcohol consumption and a lack of regular exercise. These three health behaviors are known risk factors for serious long-term ailments like heart disease.
Job stress is also tied to hypertension, obesity and even depression. Any one of these factors makes life more difficult and can even increase your risk of death. A study published in March in the journal Management Science looked at the effect of 10 sources of stress in the workplace and found that all of them contribute to increased health care spending among workers, and many to an increased risk of death. These workplace stressors, which have been linked to cardiovascular disease and poor mental health, are responsible for more deaths annually than diabetes, Alzheimer's or the flu, according to the researchers.
Demands vs. Resources
Many times, workplace stress is a matter of perception. "Two people can be in the same occupational environment and have different perceptions of the nature and demands put upon them," says Christopher McCarthy, a psychology professor and stress expert at the University of Texas–Austin.
One way of looking at stress management, McCarthy says, is as a balance between resources and demands. These resources are the "assets, skills and material resources" we have to meet the demands of work and life. When our coping resources are inadequate – or when we perceive them as inadequate – we struggle to meet those demands, resulting in stress.
But swing too far in the other direction, when your resources far outweigh your demands (for instance, if you have a job that doesn't challenge you), and it's similarly easy to experience negative stress. Addressing this balancing act requires a close look at your perception.
"'Am I reading my workplace demands accurately? Is there any way I can lessen my demand level?'" McCarthy suggests you ask yourself.
The other option is to increase your resources, whether "through interpersonal support, developing better coping or ultimately deciding on a job change if necessary," McCarthy says.
If your self-analysis reveals you really are overworked and the demands of your job are simply too much, consider talking with your manager about it. Be honest, particularly if your health is suffering as a result of workplace stress. But although you can ask your boss to lighten up on the workload, or request a few days off, you often simply have to buckle down and deal with things as they are. In these cases, author and psychotherapist Robinson says, it's up to you to manage your own workplace stress.
"The origins of workplace stress depends on the resilience workers bring to their work," Robinson says. "The No. 1 medicine? To find your inner resilient zone."
By eliminating roadblocks within you, such as pessimism or a tendency to complain frequently about your problems, Robinson says you can better manage the pressure and not let your stress affect those around you.
Robinson also recommends taking brief respites from your day to meditate, go for a walk or go outside for lunch – "don't be a desk potato," he says. Outside of work? Stay fit, eat healthfully, get a good night's sleep and nurture positive relationships.
"When you bring a healthy mind, body and spirit to your workplace, you are guaranteed success despite the work conditions or hours," Robinson says.
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